One thing I noticed last fall when I moved to up my exposure to horror films was how there were sub-genres within the genre. Two units into The Anime Syllabus, it would appear as though sub-genres abound here too. I’m sure this isn’t news at all to anyone interested in the medium…but as an outsider, it was a little bit unexpected. in a very good way.

Much like my experience with the first unit, I went two-for-three, but the shift in tone was definitely the biggest thing I took away from these three entries.

Interestingly, I began this unit of the syllabus quite similarly to the last unit – with the best of the lot. It was dumb luck again, especially because I drastically strayed from the order in this unit. Regardless, I can say with authority that if someone wanted an entry point into anime, then GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is a good example of how the genre can transcend.

The film is set very much in “our world” and uses the art form to tell a very touching and heartbreaking tale. At this stage, watching such a story play out drew me in deep, as it stood in stark contrast to the three fantastical movies I’d watched previous.  In a way, using animation to tell a WWII story is disarming – there’s an inherent sense of wonder that comes with animation as a medium. So for it to go to the dark and sad places it does comes with a bit more sting than one is used to from animation.

I’d heard veiled warnings about the film’s conclusion, so it didn’t turn me into the blubbering mess it could have. That’s not to say I didn’t want a hug…

Providing a nice break in the rhythm was 5 CENTIMETRES PER SECOND. It too is a film that is very much grounded in our world, but it changes things up by telling three short stories within the runtime. With each chapter playing shorter than the one that preceded it, 5CM/s is the story of that intense love one feels when one is young. In a way it’s a sonnet for that adoration and its purity. It’s a feeling that we’re old enough to understand, but not yet old enough to muddy with lust. It burns brightly for the briefest moment, and as I think about it, I realize its a type of love that is very seldom embodied on film.

Directed by Makoto Shinkai, the films played out with a subtle elegance I hadn’t seen yet in the syllabus. Up until now, everything has either come from the hyperactive palette of a SPIRITED AWAY or PAPRIKA, or the more muted touch of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS and FIREFLIES. What this film did instead was to keep all the visuals very tangible, but present every passing moment at its most photogenic. Hell, dead trees portrayed in this movie look like they should be hanging in the Louvre.

I see 5CM/s as my good fortune – both for its unexpected elegance, and for watching it at the perfect moment.
If my good fortune has a flip side, it’s THE PLACE PROMISED IN OUR EARLY DAYS. Not only was this a title one of my curators tried to scratch from the list, but of the whole syllabus, it proved to be the trickiest title to track down. Those of course are outside factors, and didn’t weigh on my impression of the film. But nevertheless, both details are unfortunate.

THE PLACE PROMISED – like the other pair of films in this unit – felt very much grounded in “this world”. Obviously though, it’s an alternate version of “this world” – one where Japan has been separated into two nations (North and South). Its sci-fi-like vibe builds well off its plausibility (think CHILDREN OF MEN), however it spent much of its runtime being a bit too hushed for me and where I was at with the series. Watching it right after 5CM/s was a bad idea, since the two are very much sister films (at first I thought I was watching the end of the former again). In wanting to get a broad sampler of the genre, the last thing one wants is a double-dose.

The film is elegant, and philosophically interesting. However, I think I can see why some wanted me to leave it aside in favour of other titles.

Watching these three films together was fortuitous – especially since I hadn’t actually planned it this way! It left the magical and fantastical aside and zeroed the art and storytelling in on tales that are more mature than your average western cartoon. They showed me a different facet of the genre, one that will be much-needed as I get back to the fanciful with the next unit.

Speaking of that next unit, it will come with a decidedly different frame of mind since the next three – PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and WHISPER OF THE HEART will all be watched theatrically.

Wish me luck…